Irritations and the Spiritual Life

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

Stanley Elkin once suggested that "it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of needle than for an irritated person to enter the kingdom of heaven." True enough.

An old German axiom submits that you can die of irritation and, I suspect, more than a few have succumbed. The rest of us cope, albeit with high blood pressure. Irritations beset us like mosquitoes at a picnic, unwanted little gnats, not significant in the big picture, but still capable of taking the joy out of the moment.

The same is true for marriage, family, friendship, church, and life in general. Irritations can so easily take the joy out of them. We can love and respect someone deeply, share the same values, be willing to die for him or her, and yet be constantly irritated by some minor quirk or habit that he or she exhibits - the way he habitually clears his throat, the way she's always late for everything, his need to tell a joke at a party, how she eats her food too slowly, the fact that he snores, the way she does her hair, his incapacity to choose clothes that match, the particular octave of her giggle, his fancy for Country and Western music, her elitist disdain for hamburgers and fast foods, his tendency to leave dirty cups in the sink, the list goes on. None of these is really important, but, like mosquitoes, they can take the joy out of a picnic.

And, of course, there's still "Murphy's Law", those endless irritations that arise from a mischievous aberration within the universe itself. These are not about quirks or bad habits, they're all about bad timing: "Why is this slow driver in front of me just now when I'm late for an important appointment? Why did the hairdresser choose just this time, my high- school reunion, to make a mistake on my hair? Why did Bobby get the measles just when we're about to set off on a hard-earned vacation?" There's a malicious little gene within the DNA of the universe itself whose sole purpose, it would seem, is to try our patience and tolerance. "Murphy's Law" isn't responsible for the great tragedies in life, but it is responsible for a lot language that shouldn't be used in the presence of children.

Funny thing about irritations, they usually don't reflect upon what's important in life, character, values, love, or overall graciousness and meaning, but they make us lose perspective.

Thus, you can come down to breakfast on a given morning and, because someone has spilled milk on the floor and not moped it up, you can be irritated enough to lose all gratitude for the fact that the sun is shining, you're healthy and in the prime of life, are surrounded by people who love you, have meaningful work to look forward to, and are about to sit down to bacon and eggs. A little split milk and, instead of thanking God, you're invoking God's name in less gracious terms.

Similarly, you can walk into your bathroom and instead of being grateful for the marvels of modern plumbing you groan and swear inwardly because nobody has taken the thirty seconds required to put the toilet-tissue into the dispenser ("Am I the only person in this house who knows how to do this!") Mot exactly the stuff of mysticism, but then life has an earthiness that mystics must, at a point, confront.

What do we do with all those irritations?

Irma Bombeck once wrote her own version of the classic piece: If I had my Life to Live Over Again. In it, she talked about the many times, as a mother, she was irritated when her young children would disturb her, smear dirt on the walls, make a mess in the house, or smudge her clean dress with affectionate, but grimy, hands. If she had it to do over again, she writes, she would cherish those disturbances, ignore the dirt and mess, and kiss the child who'd just smudged her clean clothing because, all too soon, long before we're ready, those loved ones move on, disappear from our lives, and we're left with just memories, longing ones, of all those wonderful things that once irritated us.

Time and distance, all too soon, take away so much that's precious and the day will come when we'll look back with longing (and hopefully humour) to the days of split milk in the kitchen and of toilet-tissue dispensers that seemed forever to be empty and we'll wonder why we couldn't, then, seize the moment. And the time will come too, all too soon, when our loved ones are gone or we are preparing to leave, when it will be only with fondness that we remember how such a wonderful person once snored, cleared his throat too often, ate her food too slowly, couldn't match his colours, loved Country and Western music, disdained hamburgers and fast foods, and, for too short a blessed time, shared life with us.